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Can ordinary mortals ever experience the subtleties of flavour that the world's top chefs do?

Rebecca Hardy puts her palate through its paces

Thursday 16 June 2011 00:00 BST

I have always hated cabbage. Whether it's down to the overcooked sludge served up at school, or the smell of it drifting from the dinner hall, it is one of the few foods that I genuinely dislike. And yet here I am, eating not only cabbage, but an entire plate of cabbage-related vegetables at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms in Nottingham.

I am here in a bid to expand my palate and educate my tastebuds, and, rather fortuitously, Sat Bains has decided to present me with cabbage. But this cabbage is delicious, cooked down to a cream, and piled high with contrasting textures of burnt onion ash, braised turnips, raw broccoli stalks in lemon vinaigrette, radish and puréed broccoli, all brought together with a luxurious smoked hollandaise.

"You're eating cabbage," Bains laughs, and hands me another forkful. His point is that you can retrain the mind to like something you hate by presenting it with surprising new flavours. "I used to be the same about beetroot," he says. "I hated it. I associated it with being forced to eat it at school. Then I decided to look again. I tried it raw. I looked at its properties and explored the flavours. It is now one of my favourite ingredients. We do beetroot sorbets, lollies, ketchup. Beetroot enabled me to evolve as a chef, but I had to break my relationship with it. It was a great learning curve."

For a lesson in tasting, Restaurant Sat Bains is a good place to start. The tasting menu highlights which tastes dominate in each dish: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Of the five tastes, the last of these is a passion of his: most of his dishes are oozing with umami, that moreish, lip-smacking taste first discovered in Japan, which he creates by adding umami-rich foods, such as parmesan, anchovies, soy, tomatoes, marmite, seaweed. He is also big on acidic flavours (white wine, lemon juice, fruit-based vinegars), which he says freshen the palate and add to the longevity of the meal. (Two hours later I can still taste the belly pork with brown shrimps, apple and elderflower tingling on my tongue). But can foodie novices like me really learn to appreciate good food?

"Yes," says Bains, "most definitely. I taste around 100 times a day. I know what burnt hay tastes like. I have taught myself to lock different tastes into the brain and recall them when I make a dish."

Atul Kocchar, another Michelin-starred chef noted for his exceptional palate and subtly spiced Indian food, agrees: "Yes, a good palate can be actively trained. Some people are gifted, but others can learn. It's a training of the mind." Kocchar regularly gives masterclasses at his Mayfair restaurant, Benares. "I teach them how to use spices – quantities and combinations. I always give this advice: use spices the same way you use salt and pepper. Taste it and see. There is no combination which doesn't work, or any that work magically."

Both chefs say that home cooks can give their palates a workout by turning up the flavours, using the most lip-smacking ingredients. "Throw umami-rich anchovies into roasted potatoes or add parmesan to mash," says Bains. "I make a marmite butter, made from 100g unsalted butter and 25g marmite, and brush over fish, meat or vegetables to bring out flavour."

Kocchar recommends cooking spices in the right way. "Indian food is all about extracting the essential oils. To do this, sauté spices gently and add to the marinade. If you just throw them in, you won't get any effect. Garlic and mustard work really well, as do fennel, star anise and cinnamon, perked up with black pepper." Be gentle with chillis, however. "Chillis are about flavour, not heat. I take away the heat by removing the seeds."

"It is a misconception that chefs are picking up on stuff that others don't," says Dr Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford. "They are just better at labelling them. One place they do better is recognising 'off' flavours. Many report to be 'super-tasters', more sensitive to bitter food and tastes in general." A quarter of the population, he says, fit this category, while another quarter, non-tasters have fewer tastebuds. "With super-tasters it is important what you pair the food with: if you serve coffee (bitter) with cream, for example, gradually they will learn to like the coffee."

This sensitivity, however, may come simply from repeatedly tasting food. "It's like anything," says Sara Jayne-Stanes, chief executive of the Academy of Culinary Arts, which runs a chefs-adopt-a-school programme. "Everything improves with practice. We work on children's palates with sensory exercises. We take a baguette, smell it and listen to the sounds as it breaks. Then we explore the tastes – we give lemons (for sour), chicory (bitter), jam (sweet), crisps (salt), and taste them on the tip of the tongue. Close the eyes. Where are you tasting it and what are you tasting? We all have a different number of tastebuds which have different sensitivities. Around 98 per cent of the population have the five tastes in the same areas of the tongue, but these can overlap. Tastes are not one-dimensional, they are quite complex."

Chocolate, like wine, is a good place to learn to identify flavours, she says. "A good dark chocolate with 70 per cent cocoa solids contains 300 different flavour compounds, 400 different aromas and should stay in the palate for 40 minutes." Start by sampling half a piece of milk chocolate, and then adding a Maldon sea salt flake to the other. "The difference is phenomenal: it brings out the flavour and prepares the palate for the next taste."

Tastebuds also slowly diminish with age. We start with 10,000 but most of us have only 5,000 left when we reach retirement. Many of us try to compensate for this by adding sugar and salt, which can dampen our tastebuds. Heavy drinking and smoking are also no-nos: they dull the palate and may accelerate declining tastebuds. The nose, too, is crucial in good-tasting: heightening your sense of smell will improve your appreciation of food.

All five senses, in fact, are crucial to taste. "Visuals, such as colour, are vital in how we rate food," says Spence. "We gave white wine coloured red to wine experts who went on to list flavours such as berries normally associated with red wine." In another study, people rated Pringles as tasting better the crunchier they sounded. In other experiments, fish and chips were perceived as being fresher when the sounds of the sea played – a discovery that led to Heston Blumenthal's infamous "sound of the sea" dish – seafood served with an iPod playing the sound of crashing waves.

Since then Spence has moved on to even more eccentric discoveries: when we speak he tells me he is travelling the next day to the Fat Duck in Bray to work on a new "bittersweet symphony", where chefs will be matching food to the specially created music. "We are trying to change the taste of the dish by changing the sounds people hear. We want to explore: if we give music that matches, will it make food taste better, and vice versa?"

The implications for working on our palates may not be clear, but Spence says, "We are discovering that we are all naturally synaesthetic, and when things are synaesthetically congruent, it leads to a better experience." If you get the music right, he says, the food will taste better. "Our research shows a dark chocolate bitter mousse goes with low brass sounds such as Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti, while a sweet sugary meringue with strawberries and citric ice cream would go with high-pitched tinkling pianos or bells such as Carnival of the Animals." There is lots of evidence, too, that ambience and environment are crucial. Playing Italian music or hanging Italian flags on the wall make people think that Italian food is more authentic."

So we should play French accordion music while eating coq au vin and hang onions on the wall? Exactly, says Spence. "If you were to ask me how much of the pleasure comes from the food and how much from environment I would say 50:50."

Nevertheless, all the experts agree that eating out at good restaurants is crucial training ground for the tastebuds. Bains, however, thinks there is no substitute for home cooking. "You are building the tastes yourself from raw to finished. It's the only way to understand it," he says.

Ultimately, it seems a good palate it isn't about super-refined tastebuds, it's about the nose, paying attention, enhancing all five senses and not being afraid to experiment. Since my tasting session with Sat Bains, I notice I have started to taste food in a new way. And I have learnt to like cabbage.

Improve your palate

* Eat slowly, mindfully and attentively. Take time to savour each flavour.

* Smell the food when you eat: the nose is crucial in tasting.

* Don't drink or smoke, both dampen the flavours and kill off tastebuds.

* Eat out at good restaurants and treat it as a gastronomic experience.

* Cook at home and don't be afraid to experiment with seasoning and spices.

* Do a blindfold tasting session, Masterchef-style.

* Cleanse the palate between tastes with water, lemon, apple or white bread.

* Keep a food journal and note how you do.

* Watch your use of salt: too much can dominate the dish.

* Try a taste detox: stick to white rice, vegetables white fish and water or fruit and herb teas for a couple of days. Afterwards, forgo the usual salt for new spices and herbs.

* Aim for a full synaesthetic experience to enhance the food and make it as full an experience as possible: choose music and ambiance that fits the food.

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